Todd Barr (blog, Tumblr, website) has been bouncing around the Beltway for 16 years, working in the spatial industry for the past 14. He holds an MSc in Geography from the University of Denver, and keeps considering getting another one in BioDefense. When he’s not peeing on Esri’s leg, he can be found either in a park playing Hide and Go Drone with his daughter, or wasting time on the internet. Todd is currently a Spatial SME 2 at Eglobaltech. That being said, all opinions are his own and are not that of his employer. He also secretly wishes he was a hat guy.
Q: You have worked in the government services sector for a long time. What do you see as the greatest challenges or difficulties in that area? What do you see as the greatest opportunities?
A: I really see three major challenges facing the feds:
- How limited the use of GIS is. It seems that once it’s “on a map”, it’s good enough. I know it’s a time-and-money thing, but if we could just push it a bit more, and dive deeper into the science and analysis part.
- Not enough sharing of data. When I was working with Transportation for the Nation (TFTN) it was amazing to see how much savings would occur with a single, albeit it huge, open data set.
- The lack of innovation, or a culture of innovation. This isn’t just in geo, but geo is what I have the best view of. Geoplatform is GOS 2.0, ArcGIS Online for Organizations is just an obfuscated Server and SDE. There are champions out there, but they are too few and too far between.
Case in point: During my time on platform, I was shocked as to how many times Jack would drop by the governing department, especially when we were building two stacks. It was so bad that a stakeholder would hide when Jackie D would drop by.
Opportunities: From a vertical market perspective, Public Health has the greatest opportunity and compatibility with GIS. I really think that if someone pushed the predictive aspect of GIS into the BI of an organization, there would be doors flying open.
Q: You have a passion for emergency management, which you have channeled into a focus of your career. The emergency management field has gotten a lot of attention over the last 15 years in the wake of events such as 9/11, the 2004 hurricane season, Katrina, Haiti, Sandy, and unfortunately many others. What have been the most effective applications of geospatial tools you have seen over that time and in what ways does the geospatial industry still fall short?
A: GIS falls short across the board in all implementations in the field of Emergency Management. Geovisualization does really well. This has been my COP rant for years. Sure — you know where it is, and what is happening — but that just puts you in reactive mode, not proactive mode. With the recent Ebola scare, sure we knew were the cases were, but why weren’t there predictive models being rolled out to help the people “on the ground”? I think that Emergency Managers, and that whole community — even those that think they “get it” — don’t. There aren’t a lot of “geo preparedness models”. They are normally built after the event, not in preparation for.
And Esri doesn’t really do much in the realm of selling the hard-core analysis part of GIS as much as VIPER, or whatever they’re hawking now.
OpenStreetMap — hands down, OpenStreetMap. When the Haitian earthquake hit, I was on a National Guard contract. The difference between the ways this “institution” reacted, and the way the community reacted, was night and day. That first weekend made me an OSM advocate. Sure, it has its issues, but it’s hands down the best spatial platform for response.
Q: In your recent blog post, “Looking for a job as a Geo Silverback,” you allude to “whistleblowing” as one of the factors affecting your employment situation. What led you to take that step and how has it affected you since?
A: Ethics, balance, and being able to sleep at night knowing I did the right thing. Contractors have a bad enough perception as it is, we don’t need to feed into that by actually doing things that reinforce that perception. There are times when contractors are handed contracts on a silver platter, and all they have to do is run a find-and-replace in an RFI from “The Contractor” to “<!–Insert Large Contractor Here–>”. But this wasn’t that, it was an under-the-table slide of inside information. Not something we teased out of the client, or we had better insight into the document than the other competitors. Which, I’m sure, the employer would have. But — and this is the economist in me talking — it fundamentally altered the playing field, giving one actor an unparalleled advantage. Not because of insight, not because they had the best team or the best price, but because they had inside information that no one else was privy to.
The feeling when I read the email made my stomach turn, and watching my coworkers rationalize why it was okay, how “this might not be the final document.” Or that “it was because the client wanted us to win.” It’s the same thinking errors that go into a 15-year-old shoplifting. This is becoming a rant, I’ll stop now.
Tl;dr: I don’t like to compete with people when the field isn’t level.
Q: As a self-proclaimed GeoSilverback, what observations or advice do you have for an undergrad just getting started on a career in geography? Do you think there will be such a thing as a “career in geography” in the coming years?
A: I’m actually working on that blog entry for later this week. Two things here: Own your personal brand — because that’s what you are, you are a product. Jobs come and go, but build your career. Two, 90% of life is just showing up.
As for the future — no, Location Tech/Geospatial is going to be absorbed by the Big Data/Data Scientists tsunami that’s coming. We’ll be specialists within the greater field of Data Crap. Coincidentally, that’s what the DC in Washington DC will stand for in the future.
By the time this is posted I should have the blog entry up, so go there. #shamelessselfpromotion
Q: You have active presence across various social media channels. In fact, it is how we originally connected. Which channel do you find most effective? How has social media benefitted you professionally and in general?
A: The Twitters. I often quote this one line I ran across a while back “Facebook is for people you knew in high school, and on Twitter you meet the people you’re supposed to meet.” I’m sure my Twitter feed would make a personal branding expert drop a deuce in her pants right there, but I don’t like to put on airs. I’m good at what I do, I say “fuck” a lot, and I clean up well.
For three years I tried to figure out where G+ fits into my social media ecosystem. Which is why I stand by my “G+ is the Detroit of social media. Lots of infrastructure, but no one lives there.”
Social media has amplified my professional network by a factor of 4-ish. Increased my knowledge of obscure/non mainstream tech. Point-blank Twitter has made me better at managing the nooks and crannies of my career.
Q: Prior to your life in geo you spent time in comedy. This penchant comes through, for example, in your “Drunken Geographer” Tumblr. Whom do you consider to be your comedic influences? Do you have any future plans with comedy?
A: WC Fields, Groucho Marx, Woody Woodberry, Benny Hill, George Carlin, and Kevin Smith.
Kevin Smith isn’t so much a comedian as a wordsmith with a humorous edge; he also shares my birthday. There you go haters, now you can find out my yahoo mail password.
Growing up where I did, we had to get a special antenna to get the Kansas City stations. There was an independent station — Channel 41 — that would play “Up All Night”. I would sneak up and watch Benny Hill, Groucho, and WC Fields. Fuse them with Carlin, and you can see where my belligerent, filthy, pointing-out-the-clay-feet-of-bullies, direct sense of humor comes from. For whatever reason, I can say things others can’t and generally walk away unscathed, so it’s working for me.
Woody Woodbury was a chance find in my dad’s vinyl collection. My love of him can only be explained through the U Tubes. Someday I will play that at an AA meeting.
I have 3 things that are in the works. Drunken Geographer “The Podcast”: The setup is based on Fat Man on Batman and a couple of other podcasts. I get someone who is “popular” in geo, we sit around, drink, and talk about why we love geography and what we would do with it if we got a grant from a foundation to just “Do Something”. I’m going to lasso Liz Lyon in on this, because when I start going raunchy, she can reel me back. I honestly run all the Tumblr posts past her before they go live. She’s a good gauge for what is too racy. I have no sensor for that.
Also, I have mapped out and written a “choose your own adventure” ArcGIS Desktop story that should be up on drunkengeographer.com.
The second thing, which is ready to go (I’m just looking for a venue), is a one-man show called “Tubing with Fags”. Basically it’s me looking at the end of my marriage, my medical issues, the duke out for custody, and its aftermath. I really think the mental quill and paper, and writing all that stuff down in my memory really got me through.
The third is a collaborative effort with a law dog friend of mine. We both were in Washington Improv Troupe, just at different times. Ed Gein the Musical. I wrote the intro song on her Facebook page during a really boring meeting.
I also have a couple of pop-up comedy things planned, one around GIS Day, and the second one around the Esri FedUC.
Q: I think this is the part of the interview where I ask you about hipsterism, but I can’t bring myself to do that. So, I’ll ask if you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with the GeoHipster readers?
A: Dammit, I had prepped an answer to this one. I’m not a GeoHipster, I’m a Spatial Punk.
Your ideas and dreams aren’t stupid, what if Frederick F. Russell was all like “I just don’t know how much of typhoid fever I should try to cure. What if I look stupid, what if I fail.” WE’D ALL HAVE DIED OF TYPHOID and apes would rule that planet, since typhoid isn’t a species jumper.
Don’t be close-minded, don’t be a zealot for one tech or the other, no one ever has all the answers to a problem, and never trust a bully.
Lastly, if your gut tells you it’s wrong, it is.